(taken without permission from ny times)

Curtain Going Up at the Performing Arts Library

October 11, 2001


In the cultural diadem of Lincoln Center, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts seemed like an added jewel - the smallest of the buildings, the one nestled between the Metropolitan Opera House and the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Now, after a $38 million, three-year renovation, the streamlined library, newly named the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, can take its proper position of centrality. It is, in fact, the one constituent of Lincoln Center that links all performing arts.

One of the great research centers in the field, the library has vast archives of audio and video tapes, films, letters and manuscripts. There are structural and stylistic changes, beginning with dashes of red throughout the building. Major alterations include reordering and consolidating departments and increasing the number of computer and video terminals to bring it closer to the state of the art technologically.

The library welcomes browsers, who are able to check out books, scores and recordings, as well as visitors who attend concerts and lectures in the Bruno Walter Auditorium. This is a place for entertainment as well as education.

The library's holdings range from the Mapleson wax cylinders - recordings secretly made by Lionel Mapleson, the Metropolitan Opera librarian, of performances at the Met between 1901 and 1904 - to the 2,500 theater productions recorded by Theater on Film and Tape (a department known as "Toft"), created 32 years ago by Betty Corwin (who retired last year).

Using the material, biographers can write books, conductors and soloists can plan concerts, and choreographers can explore the archives of Jerome Robbins, Rudolf Nureyev and Merce Cunningham for guidance. Actors preparing for character roles can listen to the special collection of recordings of dialects. In the newly improved, hospitable environment, all these items will be more readily accessible.

Paul LeClerc, the president of the New York Public Library, said the official reopening of the building has been postponed from Monday to Oct. 29 because of "a delay in the delivery of a playback system" by which audio and visual material can be transmitted directly to reading and research rooms - and also because of world events. But as planned, there is a public open house on Saturday and other private receptions will be held as scheduled this month.

Mr. LeClerc has described the Lincoln Center library as "the cerebellum of the performing arts industry in New York." Because of the renovation, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects, and the increased computerization of the collections, this week he expanded his statement to say that it is a "cerebellum with power behind it." It is, he said, "the largest performing arts collection on the planet free and accessible to the public." Mr. LeClerc expects that the yearly attendance will double, to 800,000.

There are nine million items on file in the research divisions. At the core is the theater and dance collection, which includes performance tapes and the archives of figures like Abe Burrows, Lillian Gish and Joseph Papp. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound, with 500,000 recordings, is the second largest sound collection in the United States (after the Library of Congress). Recently the library acquired the American Music Center Collection of more than 60,000 scores and recordings by American composers.

The building will now be open for longer hours than before, on most days until 8 p.m. The Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery will be open until 8 every day except Sunday. The Bruno Walter Auditorium has been reconfigured to improve the acoustics, the stage and backstage areas and to make it more conducive to concerts, lectures and films. The auditorium will begin its fall season on Monday at 6 p.m. (before the rest of the building is open) with a reading of letters from John Gielgud, David Garrick and others from the Billy Rose Theater Collection. This is the first in a series of events celebrating the performing arts in Britain.

Jacqueline Z. Davis, who succeeded Robert Marx as executive director, said the building did not have more space but had "better-used space." It was her goal, she said, to "animate the collections," to make them more easily available and useful. Ms. Davis, formerly executive director of the Lied Center at the University of Kansas and a performing arts presenter, said that now "the 17 1/2 miles of shelves can be accessed at any given moment," and that the average time to retrieve the items would be reduced to around 15 minutes.

In the newly integrated research division, music, dance and theater are side by side, with 46 video and 10 audio playback stations. A team of people planning a dance piece can sit at a series of terminals and look at the same images simultaneously.

The budget for renovation was originally $30 million, with $22 million coming from the City of New York and with the Cullmans as by far the largest private donors. The project took a year longer than planned, and unexpected structural conditions caused the price to rise, too. During the renovation, the research collections were moved to the library annex on West 43rd Street.

Built in 1965 and designed by the architect Gordon Bunshaft, the library has grown exponentially within its designated space. While Bunshaft was designing the library, Eero Saarinen was designing the Beaumont Theater. Tomas Rossant, one of the architects from the Polshek firm, said that at the outset the work on both buildings was supposed to be a partnership between Bunshaft and Saarinen, but that Saarinen and the Beaumont exercised greater authority. "The Beaumont had its very important relationship with the plaza outside, and the library got leftover space," he said. The Beaumont dominates that corner of the plaza.

As a result, visitors coming in at either of the library's two entrances (on the plaza and on Amsterdam Avenue), could have become confused when looking for rooms in various parts of the building. "The challenge for us," Mr. Rossant said, "was to try to make sense for the individual moving through the library." This was done by having each room face a bank of elevators through a glass partition and by placing red markers as signposts. Red is the signature color of the renovated building.

On a recent pre-opening tour of the library with Ms. Davis and R. Mark Tolleson (the library's assistant director), Mr. Rossant stopped under a ceiling that had parallel bars of lights affixed to it, and said: "That ceiling is the original Bunshaft, part of the brazen austerity of the building and something we did not want to compete with. We love that ceiling. It's like `2001: A Space Odyssey.' "

On the exterior, a new canopy keeps rain from striking the revolving door. Inside, a visitor faces the new Oenslager Gallery. Previously there were three exhibition spaces, now there are two. "While there is less gallery footage," Mr. Tolleson said, "they're much-improved spaces." Each is wired for media terminals and interactive components. The first exhibition in the two galleries is "Transformations" (opening Oct. 29), a wide-ranging show of manuscripts, scores, toy theaters and other items from the library's archives.

The Oenslager Gallery shares the first floor with part of the public circulating library. On the far side of the first floor, entered from Amsterdam Avenue, are the newly located Astor Gallery and the revamped Bruno Walter Auditorium, which, through the use of white maple panels, has a warmer, more inviting look.

On the second floor the exhibition space has been replaced by public reading rooms. A room-length window that had previously been curtained off for exhibitions is now open to natural light. There are long rows of desks with computers, and a section for laptops. The last row in each reading room is reserved for those who do not want to work with or near computers.

The research collections share the new space on the third floor. Behind a glass wall are bank upon bank of desks with computers and video terminals, all of them hooked up to the archive in the basement. To brighten the space, architects went through the roof, installing twin skylights. With its technological improvements and hospitable atmosphere, it is comparable to a research room in the new British Library in London. At the far end of the floor are the Guthrie McClintic Room of rare theatrical letters and memorabilia and a greatly expanded section for photocopying, in the past the bane of people working on projects.

Within weeks, the research collections and the public reading rooms will be humming with activity, as the library expands its role as a lively archive for artists and others interested in theater, dance, music and recorded sound.